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The mayor-elect's partner in life

ElectionsEric GarcettiPoliticsSocial IssuesUniversity of OxfordPATHHoward Dean

Midway through his election-night victory speech, Eric Garcetti turned toward the cluster of family on the stage behind him and invited his wife to step forward. He thanked her for "making our life work" under the stress of his run for mayor of Los Angeles, saying, "None of this would be possible without Amy Wakeland."

It was a rare moment in the spotlight for Wakeland, a powerful player in Garcetti's political life but one who fiercely guards their family's privacy.

With Garcetti's inauguration five weeks away, Wakeland, 43, will soon need to reconcile her fondness for a low profile with the platform that her husband's position will offer to advance causes that she has worked on for years.

PHOTOS: Election night in Los Angeles

"Environmental issues, economic justice issues, combating sexual violence — those are the things I care about," Wakeland said in a recent conversation over dinner with Garcetti at an Italian restaurant near their Silver Lake home.

Wakeland's deep involvement in Garcetti's political career has led to speculation at City Hall on how big a force she will be in shaping his agenda and administration. Friends and foes alike say there's no doubt Wakeland is a full partner not just in Garcetti's personal life but also his professional life.

The two met 20 years ago when both were in a group of Rhodes Scholars taking a red-eye flight to England to begin graduate studies at Oxford University.

"I remember talking to her, and thinking she's great and pretty — and she has no memory of it," Garcetti recalled. Wakeland's version: "I just wanted to sleep."

Wakeland's upbringing in small towns in Indiana shaped her politics. Her mother, who was married three times, worked multiple jobs — including Sheraton restaurant hostess and bookkeeper — to support Amy and her younger brother, sister, stepbrother and stepsister.

The family moved around so much that Wakeland attended 12 schools and lived in 15 homes. One was a duplex, where the five kids shared a converted attic. Another was "a big farmhouse with lots of wild dogs running around out back," Wakeland said.

"My mom worked hard to keep the lights on, and to keep the gas on, and sometimes they weren't on, and sometimes we were behind on the rent," she said.

As an undergraduate at Albion College in Michigan, Wakeland studied English and political science, working as a waitress and campus police dispatcher to supplement her scholarships. At Oxford, she wrote a dissertation arguing that in segregated American society, the poor often could not gain access to social networks that enable people to succeed.

Wakeland's politics were a good match with Garcetti's. He had grown up in the privileged settings of Encino and Brentwood but took trips as a young man to support social justice movements in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Myanmar.

"I had girlfriends where we shared values, but this was something where we had a really deep connection on that — wanting to make this a more just world, and we both saw that as part of the glue and attraction between us," he said.

After they found their way back to Los Angeles, Wakeland ran field operations in Garcetti's maiden run for City Council in 2001. "She basically ran it like a military operation," said Sean Burton, a longtime friend of the couple.

At the time, Garcetti and Wakeland lived in Echo Park, where they renovated a sleek hillside home with cutting-edge environmental features that earned the couple a photo spread in Dwell, the design magazine. In one shot, Wakeland, wearing red gardening gloves, posed squatting in a backyard vegetable patch.

The home, like the larger Silver Lake house where Wakeland and Garcetti live now, was often a bustling social scene. "They have a vast friendship network, really from around the world," said Burton, who described their home as "almost like a salon."

"When people come to town, Eric and Amy say, 'Come stay with us.'"

Inspired partly by her childhood in Indiana, where her mother took in two runaways and all four grandparents took an active role in raising her, Wakeland wanted to become a foster parent. She and Garcetti, who were married in 2009, have fostered seven children over time.

"I grew up with this notion that family was from all over the place," Wakeland said. "And when I was in high school, I wanted to have a large family, and I talked about building a family that was not necessarily a biological one, but a chosen one. And then when I met Eric — everybody is Eric's family."

During the mayoral race, Wakeland and Garcetti adopted a baby, Maya, now 17 months old. At the Italian restaurant, Garcetti cooed at Maya in Spanish. Wakeland worried the toddler could choke on chunks of ice, so Garcetti bit them into smaller pieces. Unsatisfied, Wakeland asked a waiter to bring crushed ice.

In politics, Wakeland's style has struck critics as brash or abrasive. Allies describe her manner as frank or direct.

"She doesn't suffer fools," said Madeline Janis, cofounder of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a group closely tied to organized labor.

Wakeland has been a prodigious fundraiser for the alliance, which seeks to influence the mayor and City Council on an array of issues, from commercial trash collection to port pollution.

PHOTOS: Election night in Los Angeles

"They are focused on campaigns that disproportionally benefit women and Latinos, African Americans, the folks who are most disadvantaged in the wage labor market, and I like that," Wakeland said.

Beyond her role as a senior advisor in Garcetti's campaigns, Wakeland has worked for L.A. Unified School District board candidates and Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race. Accounts vary on how involved she has been in the running of Garcetti's council office. She said she had limited her role largely to scheduling to accommodate Garcetti's family time as foster children have come and gone.

"It's hard to manage a City Council schedule with a family, period — much less with a family whose structure changes," she said.

Wakeland's firm hand on the schedule was apparent at the restaurant. When Garcetti mentioned an upcoming event for the Liberty Hill Foundation, a group that promotes social change, she said firmly: "We are not attending the dinner. No. We are not attending the dinner."

Wakeland, a former Liberty Hill board member, now serves on the boards of Just Detention International, which seeks to end prison rape, and People Assisting the Homeless. She is also on the honorary board of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. As the election approached, she showed no inclination to curb any of her work to avoid potential conflicts at City Hall. "If Eric's mayor, that's what I'm going to be doing," she said. "If Eric's not mayor, that's what I'm going to be doing."

Wakeland also acknowledged that Garcetti's role as mayor could further the goals of the groups she supports.

"If it helps where those issues are concerned," she said with a laugh, "then I'm in."

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

james.rainey@latimes.com

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